The sprawling space that formerly housed Kozen, a high-end but short-lived Japanese restaurant, has an unfortunate and hard-to-access location on Fair Oaks Boulevard across from Ruth’s Chris Steak House. The steakhouse still apparently does well even in these parlous economic times, but Kozen met an untimely demise. Now, El Gallo Bar & Grill, a resolutely unambitious, firmly inauthentic Mexican restaurant, has sprung up in its place.
Where once inventive sushi roamed, the combo plate now reigns supreme, after a quickie makeover that involves hanging up Mexican-themed folk art—and covering the hard-to-disguise sushi case with draped beer-ad flags and a bunch of fake potted plants. Traces of fancy japonaiserie remain in the décor, like a now-disabled wall fountain at the entrance and pots of soaring bamboo in odd corners, and there’s an enclosed patio that’s nice enough (considering the location) on a busy thoroughfare, but thick, clear vinyl tops over the maroon tablecloths and cheap cutlery clearly signal that the days of wine and roses (or maybe that should be sake and ikebana) are gone.
The stolid menu could not be much further from the previous occupant, either. This is basically the Mexican restaurant we all were taken to as kids, and while it’s not likely to offend people, it’s not going to specially interest anyone, either. You have your red-sauce enchiladas in chicken, cheese or beef; your flautas and chimichangas; your fajitas; and so on. A couple of seafood dishes—like the camarones al mojo de ajo (or shrimp in garlic sauce)—push the envelope just slightly, but not by much. Burritos, quesadillas, nachos, queso fundido: It’s all pretty uninspiring, to be honest.
You start off, of course, with chips (light and warm) and salsa, canned-tasting and acidic but otherwise not very interesting. Drinks include a full lineup of Mexican and flavorless domestic options, as well as a full bar; my husband’s margarita on the rocks was an alarming neon yellow-green color and tasted primarily of citric acid and harsh tequila. (There’s a big happy-hour discount from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. and the dim bar was full of patrons, whereas the dining room was largely deserted.)
The drink accompanied our appetizer: taquitos, chunky (and a little bit greasy) little roll-ups full of slightly stringy beef with a faint, earthy hint of chili. They were topped with a scoop of fresh, jade-colored, subtle and nicely textured guacamole, unadulterated with anything much beyond avocado and some herbaceous notes. That was the best thing on the plate; in a striking contrast to the guac, the pico de gallo salsa was notably less than fresh, discolored and old-tasting.
The fajitas my husband ordered—half steak, half chicken—were also tired and bland. Tough, ragged strips of beef lacked detectable spicing and mostly tasted of charring from the grill. Bits of white-meat chicken were a little more tender and seemed to benefit from a tangy marinade, but there was still no spice and not much going on. An incongruously stylish grilled lemon half adorning the plate, while attractive, didn’t go very far to fix the underlying problems. The tastiest aspect was the vegetables—especially slivered onions, which bring their own savor to the dish.
My combination plate was less objectionable, but still underwhelming. A soggy chile relleno overflowed with cheese, which makes most things taste pretty good, but the tomato sauce napping the chili could have had more punch. An enchilada suiza had salty chicken that looked like it had been cooked in a tomato based broth (it was orange), even though the sauce for the enchiladas was green—a bit of a disconnect, but the flavors of both were so retiring that it didn’t really matter. Lots of cheese overwhelmed the whole thing, anyway, and the only textural contrast on the plate was a handful of chopped lettuce. Standard-issue orange rice and bland refried beans were scarcely more noteworthy.
There are a few desultory desserts, but, already full of not-so-great food, we declined. Not even for pay will I order a strawberry chimichanga; a person has to draw the line somewhere. El Gallo seems to be aiming squarely at mediocrity, and it just comes up to the mark. The enterprise seems almost cynical in its quick-change, lowest-common-denominator reworking of a crummy location into the kind of place where people might wander once, fill up on cheap food—or, more likely, drinks—and never return (even if they do offer a few breakfast items). Frankly, I don’t see it changing the fortunes of the space it occupies for long.